This straightforward statement sums up the entire experience and easily works better than any review score. If you liked Descent Second Edition and you like Star Wars then go out and buy this game, seriously, you don’t even need to read the rest of this review.
Not only does Imperial Assault beautifully combine these two elements, it improves upon the older game, making for a tighter, more rewarding experience with a an extra two-player miniatures skirmish game added for free.
Star Wars Imperial Assault is a campaign based miniatures board game, where a group of players will take control of a rag tag band of rebel misfits fighting against the cruel might of the empire. One player controls the forces of the Empire while up to four players group together as the Rebels.
It is also a scenario based two player miniatures skirmish game, where you can assemble a force of Rebels, Empire or Scum and battle it out. For this review I’m largely ignoring the skirmish game, not because its bad, but because I need to play it further and because it would make this review far too long.
Imperial Assault plays out much like the dungeon crawling of its closely related Descent sibling. The Rebels will have an objective to complete; steal some data, escape from a prison, or destroy some weapons, while the Imperial player will be attempting to simply stop them before the time runs out or succeed in a counter objective. As time ticks by, and the Rebels take more and more time to complete their goal, then the Imperial player starts to accumulate ‘threat’ which can be spent to summon more troops to the board or activate special abilities.
Imperial Assault can be played as a single, one-off scenario, but that’s not where the game shines. Imperial Assault is designed to be played as a campaign, the core game (there are expansion already on the way) is based around the Rebels trying to find details of a new secret weapon being developed by the Empire and will string together around 10 different scenarios into a branching campaign.
Not only does each mission of the campaign have a bearing on the next mission available, the rebel players will also be given options on which side-missions to play. These side-mission choices usually revolve around trying to get something good for your team, like a light-sabre for the Jedi, sorry force sensitive exile (we’re not allowed to call them Jedi anymore), or preventing the Imperial player from gaining an advantage for his side, like the ability to play Darth Vader as a reinforcement.
After each game both side will gain experience points which can be used to buy new abilities adding more tactical options. The rebels can also loot crates for credits, giving them options to tool up their squad with new weapons and armour.
The real clever part here is how the campaign branches depending on the success and failures of each scenario and the side missions are based around the rebel characters chosen. Add in the huge variety of upgrade options and this means that no two play-throughs of the campaign will be the same.
Simply calling Imperial Assault, Descent with a George Lucas lick of paint is actually doing the great game disservice. If anything, Imperial Assault is Descent 3rd Edition. The rules have all been subtlety tweaked and improved; line of sight now makes more sense, the campaign is more fleshed out, and character death more fatal.
The biggest change though is the simplest and this is how units are activated. In Descent all heroes would take their turns and then the Overlord would then activate his monsters in the order of his (or her) choosing. Often leading to the heroes attempting to roadblock the Overlord and trying to end their turn in the optimal location, resulting in long slow turns as the players work together to calculate the optimum move.
However in Imperial Assault, unit activation swaps between Rebel and Imperial players; one rebel player takes a turn and then the Empire takes a turn with one unit. This simple alteration completely changes the dynamics of the game. Players can’t over think their turn too much as they don’t know which unit the Imperial player will activate next, it eliminates the road block tactic and changes the emphasis of strategy. While it is true that the Imperials can still concentrate on slowing down the Rebels, it makes the game more fluid, more tactical and ultimately a lot more fun for both sides.
One of my concerns with Descent was that the balance of the game teetered on a knife edge. Since that time I’ve started to develop a new theory about game balance. I used to think that game balance was a like a set of scales, that a well-balanced game felt like both sides where matched and that each had an equal chance of winning.
However, I’ve started to believe that a truly balanced game occurs when you believe your opponent has the upper hand, that they have the best cards, the best abilities and there’s no chance of you winning and, at the same time, your opponent feels exactly the same about you. This is when games are at their most tense; when you feel that you have to work for every inch of the board, when every die roll matters and you’re terrified about what your opponent is going to pull out next. And this is exactly how it feels to play Imperial Assault.
As the rebels you will constantly feel that you are out of time, that you’re running through the game with only the last drop of health available and you’re constantly in fear that the next set of Imperial reinforcements will include an AT-ST and Darth Vader. As the commander of the Empire and Scum’s best troops you feel that your troops aren’t up to the job, that your Stormtroopers are dropping like flies and that damn “force sensitive exile” can dodge a volley of heavy laser cannon fire with a single dice roll. This is what a well-balanced game feels like.
To give you an idea of just how close the game is, on the very last mission of our campaign, after 8 months of playing a game every couple of weeks, the final game came down to one point of damage on Darth Vader. One point. If we had caused one more point of damage on one attack on the Dark Lord of the Sith we would have won the entire campaign.
I haven’t mentioned so far just how lush this game is. This may be one of the best produced games I have ever seen. The miniature sculpts are absolutely amazing, and you get a bucket full of them in the box, including an AT-ST that is just begging to be painted. The map tiles are beautifully drawn, the artwork all original and even the covers of the rulebooks.
It comes at a price mind you, this is one of Fantasy Flight Games big box games which will set you back £80 if you’re unlucky enough to play full whack for it, but I think this game is worth every penny.
Star Wars Imperial Assault is an absolutely superb board game, every single game is a tense battle, fighting over every square of the game board. Yes it is Descent 3rd Edition with Star Wars and that alone is an amazing thing. True if you don’t like tactical miniatures games or Star Wars then there is nothing here for you, but if like me you love both then this game really is the pinnacle of gaming.